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British Fort St. Joseph; The role it played in the War of 1812

The British establishment of Fort St. Joseph was used to strategically take the American establishment of Fort Michilimackinac in the War of 1812. This was a significant capture for British forces as they could control shipping connections from Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. During a time when American troops were attempting to overtake land in British Canada, controlling the Great Lakes was an important military asset.

The Fort was constructed by the British between 1797 and 1805 on the southern most tip of St. Joseph Island and the St. Marys River. It consisted of a blockhouse, bakery, Indian council house, and storehouse. The Fort was garrisoned by a small regiment of soldiers, manning 4 cannons and 6 small swivel guns. Trade was most significant at Fort St. Joseph after its resurrection in 1797. The Southwest Company established a commercial depot in 1798 to exchange furs and other goods with the Native populations.

After America declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812, the news of conflict didn’t arrive from Montreal to the Fort until July 11. Captain Charles Roberts, who commanded the Tenth Royal Veterans Battalion and a set of artillerymen, prepared the 50 or so soldiers stationed at Fort St. Joseph for battle. According to sources, Roberts received confusing orders from Major-General Isaac Brock over whether to defend the Fort or launch an attack on the Americans at Fort Michilimackinac. Aggressively, Captain Roberts assembled a force of one thousand men, consisting of garrisoned soldiers, fur trade employees, and First Nation allies to set off towards Fort Michilimackinac. On July 17, Roberts’ men took the Fort with ease, pressing Lieutenant Commander Porter Hanks to surrender against overwhelming forces. Most of the garrison moved to the stronger American Fort, and successfully defended it against American troops a few weeks later. In July 1814 American naval vessels landed on St. Joseph island and burned the previously occupied British establishment to the ground. After repairing what could be salvaged the British decommissioned the Fort in 1824.

The importance of Fort St. Joseph highlights aspects of modern military tactics and planning. Captain Roberts knew defending the British Fort would be suicide for his small Battalion, due to their location and structure. Therefore, he planned the offensive attack on the unsuspecting Americans. This also illustrates the significance of communication in military operations, as Lieutenant Hanks had received no word of the Declaration of War. In present day military affairs, the United States has bases and fortifications all over the world. The location of these bases and advanced communications give American forces an advantage when fighting battles overseas. On the other hand, British establishments during the colonial period made lasting relationships with Natives and French fur traders, eventually aiding them in overtaking the Americans. Today, the United States has poor relations with several counties that they have establishments in, partly contributing to various conflicts. Examples include US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.


Source 1 Dale, Ronald J. “Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site of Canada” (2012).

Source 2 Baillod, Brendon. Lewis, Walter. “Maritime History of the Great Lakes” (2003).

Source 3 Mansfield, J.B. “History of the Great Lakes” Volume I (1899).

Source 4 Elizabeth Vincent. “Fort St Joseph”, Manuscript Report, No 335 (1978).